Tips and Ideas to Save Money in Your Kitchen Preparations
Even more than during ordinary times, cooking and eating during Advent and Christmas time can be expensive. For many of us, the extra outlays of cash can be particularly tough if our budgets are tight and if we anticipate the additional costs of buying presents and giving to others. Following are some tips and ideas that may help during the special holiday season and beyond.
Adjust your menus to what is available. Many grocery stores run specials, offer “loss leaders”—items significantly less than their normal prices to get you in the doors—and issue coupons that can save you a substantial amount of money if you’re willing to adjust your menu to what’s available that week. Keep in mind that store brands may be less expensive than name brand foods, even those name brands offered “on sale.” Also watch for “use it now” or “must go” foods. These are not expired foods but those that are close to their “sell by” dates. The foods are safe for you to purchase and use that day or freeze for later.
Take stock of what you have before you shop. Do you need to buy more? Plan your menus before you go to the grocery store to take advantage of what you have on hand as well as what’s on sale. Can you incorporate what you have on hand with what’s on sale? For example, if you have some green peppers and left over rice in the refrigerator, could you take advantage of “on sale” ground beef to make some stuffed bell peppers or picadillo for a weeknight dinner?
Make a shopping list—based upon the grocery advertisements, promotions, and “loss leaders”—for what you need and stick to the list. Most stores put out tantalizing displays that call to you. Ignore those siren songs to buy beautiful, already prepared, “limited time only” seasonal items and stick to what’s on your list. The “limited time only” items will be tough on your food budget, generally aren’t that good when you get them home, and, if you really want them, will be cheaper after Christmas.
Pay attention to what spoils and what you throw away each week. Don’t buy it again or cut back on the amount you purchase the next time. Are you buying too much of something and having it go bad? Those avocados that were too cheap to pass up lingered too long on the counter or in the vegetable bin and turned so squishy you had to dispose of them. You’ve just tossed money in the trash, down the garbage disposal, or to the dog (yes, some dogs eat avocados).
Don’t waste your money on drinks that have no nutritional value. Drink water from the tap and buy milk. Watch the fruit juices. Most are full of sugar and aren’t as nutritious as eating a piece of fruit. If you want to add taste to water, add some fresh fruit slices. If you do want fruit juices as a treat, cut them with a little seltzer water for a fizzy, less expensive, lower calorie option. If you want to buy wine for cooking, buy the less expensive bottles or use left over wine that’s no longer the greatest to drink. The chemical processes that occur during cooking will negate the value of using expensive wine (despite what the “froufrou” chefs say—i.e., “only cook with what you’d drink”), so save your money.
Stock up on staples and spices when you can and when they’re on sale. Oils, spices, and condiments can be pricey, but a little goes a long way, so you don’t have to buy the items frequently. Baking supplies are often on sale in November and December, but be careful to buy simple items, not the fancy packaged stuff (see below). Also consider buying cheap basic spices and save your money to buy the hard to find or more expensive spices. Some basic spices sell for a dollar or two at larger grocery stores, dollar stores, Aldi, and some of the big mart stores. Sure, the spices from Penzey’s and some on-line places are great, but, if you can’t afford them, go for what you can that will help your meals taste better. Frankly, some of the basic spices and herbs—cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, chili powder, oregano, and rosemary, for example—in the dollar containers are pretty good as long as they’re fresh.
When you buy baking supplies, focus on ingredients that are simple and nutritious. Although that sounds obvious, when you get to the supermarket, it may be hard. The stores want to entice you to buy things. Nonetheless, you don’t really need that cute little shaker of red and green sugar crystals that costs $6. A few drops of food coloring mixed with regular sugar will give you the same product for pennies. Buy whole grain flour, oats, simple sweeteners (white and brown sugars, honey, molasses, maple and corn syrup), leaveners (baking soda and baking powder), spices, and oils to make your own baked goods rather than purchasing pre-made items, expensive mixes, and refrigerated “bake at home” items. You can better control what goes into your baked goods as well as making them for less money. Yes, sometimes you can get great deals on cake and other mixes, but be careful not to overbuy. Some substitutions for high fat items also can save you money and calories. Butter is expensive! Instead of buying a lot, go for smaller quantities to use carefully and substitute unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas and other fruit purees when you can. Canola oil, although high in calories, is lower than butter in saturated fat, generally less expensive, and makes a good substitute for butter in some baked goods. Similarly, substitute lower fat dairy for higher fat, more expensive dairy ingredients—i.e., low fat milk or evaporated skim milk for rich cream.
Shop more often, if you can. This may seem counterintuitive, but shopping more frequently will let you focus on buying more perishable fruits and vegetables and less processed stuff that keeps on the shelf longer. The processed items tend to be more expensive, more calorie dense, and horrendously bad for you with lots of added salt and preservatives. If you can shop every few days rather than once a week, you can buy smaller amounts of fresh items, reducing waste, storage problems, and improving your diet. For example, fresh potatoes (which actually keep for quite a while) are much better tasting than the kind that come out of a box. If you can’t shop more often, buy less fresh food, use it first so it doesn’t spoil, and save the frozen food for the end of the week to fill in the gaps (see below).
Buy in bulk if and when you can. Many items are less expensive when you buy them in bulk or bundled. Nonetheless, as with sale items, don’t buy more than you can use if the food will spoil before you can use it. The pound of baby greens isn’t a good deal if 8 ounces of them get slimy before you can use them. If you think you’ll freeze items, make sure before buying them that you have room in the freezer to do so. Buying larger sizes of items and repackaging them into smaller portions also will save you money over purchasing “individually wrapped packages.” For example, buying large bags of nuts and popping a handful in a baggie for a snack will save you a significant amount over buying the little packages of nuts. Buying yogurt in the large cartons (quart size or so) also is more cost effective than buying the small, single-serving containers. The little containers are cute and convenient, but they’re pricey and not really all that great for you, with a lot of added sugars and other weird things. Your best value—economically and nutritionally—is to buy the large cartons of plain yogurt—regular or Greek—and serve your own portions. It’s easy enough to spoon yogurt from the large container onto your morning fruit, dollop some on a main dish, or put some in a small container to take with you to work. Add whatever flavor and sweetener you like to your portions. For example, if you want sweeter yogurt, mix in some honey, fruit, maple syrup, or even a teaspoon or so of brown sugar. See what combinations you like best. Also keep in mind that the store brands of yogurt tend to be cheaper, even when the name brands are on sale.
Look high and low on the grocery shelves for deals. Literally. The middle, eye-level shelves often hold the most expensive offerings for items. If you can’t find the store brands of items, ask the clerks. They may be able to help you or point you to the best buys.
Buy foods that are in season. Grocery stores generally carry all kinds of fresh produce and meats, but they aren’t all good. The best tasting stuff will be the foods that normally are harvested or slaughtered (sorry) at specific times of the year. During the late fall and early winter, cold crop vegetables and fruits—broccoli, cabbages, root vegetables, apples, and pears, for example—will be at their best rather than summer ones like zucchini, tomatoes, and peaches. Pork often can be had at more reasonable prices than some cuts of beef in the fall and winter.
Buy whole grains and a variety of them. Why be content with white flour and bread when a multiplicity of tasty and more nutritious grains and flours are available—such as oats, quinoa, wheat berries, whole-wheat flour, rye flour, barley, bulgur, and flax. Some whole grains tend to be more expensive than others, so if one is out of your budget range, try another. For example, if quinoa is too pricey, try bulgur instead. Oats can be an incredibly cheap breakfast food as well as a great addition to a variety of main dishes and desserts. And don’t forget cornmeal, which is a staple in the American South. Try to incorporate whole grains into every meal and use them in baking. All carbohydrates, contrary to some popular culture, are not “evil carbs.” Your body needs the nutrients and fiber in whole grains to function well.
Buy in advance for an “emergency” or “lazy meal.” You probably won’t want to cook every night, even if you have good intentions, and sometimes your leftovers will be sparse or consumed by a child when you weren’t aware (that’s okay, he was hungry). So find something at the market that’s reasonably priced, not too bad for you, and that can be cooked quickly. For me, that’s “emergency chicken sausages.” They often are on sale, sometimes pre-cooked, and although salty, are not too bad in terms of fat. I can toss the sausages in a pan and brown them in only a few minutes. They’re great with pasta or potatoes and whatever vegetable I can find in the refrigerator or freezer—an almost instant dinner.
Buy a variety of less expensive protein-rich foods. Beans, other legumes, tofu, dairy items, and eggs are especially good for you and can make or fill out your meals less expensively than many meats. Lower priced meats—lean ground turkey, chicken, and beef round steak, for example—have the advantage of being lower in saturated fat than some more expensive cuts like New York strip steak and beef prime rib. Plan on supplementing your vegetables and fruits with meats rather than the other way around. In other words, think of meat as a condiment or splurge on some days rather than always as the main offering. Try some “Meatless Mondays” and serve non-meat proteins. The added beauty of less expensive proteins is that they frequently are quick to prepare as well as nutritious. If you have eggs and vegetables on hand, for example, you can have a frittata or omelet prepared in less time than it takes to order pizza. Cans of beans can be opened and turned into nutritious meals in only a few minutes. And don’t forget the old standby, peanut butter, which can be used in so many ways besides sandwiches and slathered on bananas.
Avoid pretty. Many grocery stores are selling you image and appearance, not necessarily taste and nutrition. Sometimes the stores with the bright rather than subdued lighting, the limited choices, and the “bag it yourself” formula are far less expensive. I’ve found great deals on produce at no frills ethnic markets (like Lotte in northern Virginia). Some small, own-brand markets (like Aldi) lack a lot of choices, but they do offer great specials and have the basics for far less than most neighborhood supermarkets. Ethnic markets and smaller places (like Aldi and Trader Joe’s) also can be good places to buy spices that are less dear than those at neighborhood markets. Beware of larger “big box” stores. Sometimes they have less expensive items (bulk items and spices), but not always. Keeping track of costs of items at various places is essential if you want to save money. Also, by avoiding pretty, I mean the items, as well as the stores. Ugly, misshapen produce frequently is far less expensive than the beautiful, perfect items you find at the Whole Paycheck stores. I don’t care whether my red bell peppers and other vegetables are funny looking. The misshapen aspect of the produce doesn’t affect the taste, and I almost always cut up the foods anyway before cooking and serving them. And, if my apple is a bit lopsided, I can deal with that. By the time I turn it into a core it won’t be.
Avoid prepared and packaged foods. Buy foods in their simplest states and wash, chop, and prepare them yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to prepare everything from scratch, but it does involve some basic chores. Pre-chopped vegetables and fruits, for example, can be incredibly expensive ($5 for a small plastic container of chopped celery and onions at my local market! Almost $20 for a package—albeit a big one—of “cauliflower rice.” Sheesh! It couldn't even have been a full head of cauliflower!). You’ll save a considerable amount of money by preparing your own fresh ingredients. Admittedly, the prepared stuff saves time, but, if you’re pressed, enlist others to help. Your spouse and children should be able to assist with some basic food preparation tasks. And if they don’t know how to do something, teach them. If you don’t know how, either, check out some instruction via utube. Learning is a good thing. Keep in mind that, at some point, your spouse and children probably will have to fend for themselves. When they do, takeout meals will be budget and health busting options for your loved ones, so help guide them now to the learning that will enable them to make better choices later. Also, I find it works for me to chop extra vegetables—onions, carrots, celery, bell peppers, etc.—when I prepare salads and then store the extra vegetables in plastic bags in the refrigerator. The next time I need salad ingredients or cut up vegetables for a dish, I have them on hand.
Avoid junk food aisles—those with soda, chips, cookies, candy—and the deli section. The items sold there will eat up your food budget, fail to provide nutrients that will satisfy your body for long, and significantly add to the sugar, fat, and salt content of your diet. Instead of visiting the junk food aisles and deli, go for the produce section and splurge on fruits. The fruits can do double duty as snacks and desserts. I have a rule of thumb I try to use when I think I want a snack. I ask myself, are you hungry enough to eat an apple? If so, I’m hungry and need a snack. Sometimes it’s an apple and other times something else (okay, sometimes it is chocolate!), but I know junk food will not satisfy my food needs.
Don’t buy desserts. Make them. Yes, the attractively packaged baked goods can be alluring. Nonetheless, even “on sale” cookies, cakes, and pies can be expensive and are usually loaded with sugar, salt, and evil trans-fats. Plus, even though they look good, the commercially made desserts often don’t taste that great when you get them home. Resist the temptation of the commercial goodies and make something more nutritious and delicious at home. Keep in mind that, unless you have loads of time on your hands, you'll probably be self-regulating with your homemade desserts. In other words, if you make a pie or cake for your family on Sunday, that may be it for the week. Once the Sunday dessert is gone, you may have to turn to quick, simple desserts like fruit or pudding if you don't have packaged goods on hand. Your waistline may be happy about that. That said, I’m not a complete food zealot. Occasionally stores will run fantastic specials on things like cake mixes, ice cream, and frozen, “you bake,” pies. Go for them as special, not everyday, treats.
Watch the scanner and cash register at the grocery store. Make sure you’re getting accurate and advertised prices. The computers aren’t always correct, and sale prices aren’t always properly entered into the computer system. You may end up paying full price for items you thought were on sale. Also make sure an item isn’t scanned too many times—i.e., you’re charged for three of something when you’re buying only two. Check the scanner and then check your receipt before you leave the store. Oh, and make sure everything you buy ends up in your bag. I know someone who once left the market without the nice chuck roast she planned to cook. Apparently the roast made its way into someone else’s bag, but she didn’t notice the meat was missing until she’d driven home.
Embrace leftovers. They are quick and will save you time and money. Only have a small amount of left over food and think it’s not worth saving? Think again. At one point as I was watching my lunch heat in the microwave at work (no, I couldn't just leave it there while I went back to my desk), I calculated how much my husband and I had saved over the course of our careers by packing leftovers for our lunches. It amounted to enough money to pay for about one semester of college (undergraduate school) for our son, who went to Johns Hopkins University. Not bad. Leftovers also can be far more nutritious than take-out food or the little boxed frozen meals from the grocery freezer section. Those cute little boxes are expensive, even if you have coupons. The little boxes also are loaded with salt, preservatives, and who knows what else but not much actual food. Eeuuh!
Watch portion sizes. As Americans we tend to eat too much and especially too much of the wrong foods. Because we really don’t need to eat as much as we do, cutting back on what we buy at the grocery store and what we cook is a way to trim our bodies as well as our spending. In fact, if we eat better, nutritionally balanced foods, we tend to eat less, because good foods keep us from feeling hungry longer than junky foods do. The US Department of Agriculture recommends that a serving of meat be only 2-3 ounces—roughly the size of a deck or cards or the palm of your hand (not counting the fingers). A cup of macaroni and cheese on your plate shouldn’t be much larger than the size of a baseball. A potato shouldn’t be any bigger than a computer mouse.
Focus on simple meals most of the time. Not every meal has to be gourmet or restaurant quality. Most restaurant meals are loaded with fat and sugar as well as served in portions that are sufficient to feed at least two people. Instead, opt for meals more like what your grandmother or great grandmother may have cooked—heavy on the seasonal vegetables, low on the meat, and with whole grains to supplement. For instance, your grandmother probably stretched a variety of foods—including leftovers—in casseroles and similar dishes (think chicken pot pie and tuna noodle casserole). Learn to do likewise (but leave out the bacon grease and lard). Inexpensive fruits and puddings used to be common, wholesome desserts. Bring them into your diet more often.
Be creative. If you don’t have something on hand or it’s too expensive to buy, find an alternative. For example, if you don’t have pasta sauce or salsa on hand (which, by the way, usually has a lot of salt and sugar in it), see if you have crushed tomatoes instead and add some onions, garlic, and herbs. What if you don’t have or want to buy heavy cream? How about using some evaporated or evaporated skim milk instead? Both make great sauces for a lot less money (and fat). No shallots? Use onions. They’ll be fine and are easier to peel, too. It’s okay. Life will go on without the shallots. Also, keep in mind some creative ways to use up the items that are lingering in your refrigerator. For instance, rice and bread can be turned into puddings. Sour milk can be incorporated into breads and pancakes. Less than fresh nuts can be toasted back to better taste. Bananas can be frozen for smoothies as well as turned into breads. Wilting spinach can be tossed into pastas and scrambled eggs. Little bits of vegetables, grains, pastas, meats, and broths can be combined into soups. You get the idea. My mother periodically made “clean out the refrigerator soup.” She gathered up all the “little dabs,” dumped them into a soup pot, often with canned tomatoes, and made a great, filling and nutritious soup.
Learn to cook and do it more often. You don’t need to be a gourmet or “iron chef.” I cringe when I hear or read about famous chefs or television “cooks” denigrating the simple cooking from previous decades while touting their fussy, ultra modern, and often ultra expensive cooking. You don’t need to compete for a Michelin star in your kitchen. You just need to know how to turn simple ingredients into meals that will nourish your body and satisfy your tastes, sort of like your grandmother did. That’s really not that hard, particularly with all the modern conveniences—like microwaves and slow cookers—that you have and your grandmother lacked. Also keep in mind that you don’t need to cook everything at once or start everything from scratch. Begin with one or two new things at each meal and go from there. For example, if you’re trying a new main dish, serve leftover vegetables with it. My mom gave me good advice many years ago. She said, “just add one new thing to your leftovers and you have a new meal.” She made the best leftover roast beef hash ever, and she was right. Feeding doesn’t have to be fancy.
Savor the time you spend cooking. How, you say? You have no time with work, child care, elder care, household chores, exercise classes, and the many other things that eat up the hours in our days—like watching iron chef while eating takeout food. In fact, spending a few minutes chopping and preparing good, nourishing foods may be a way for you to wind down from excessive “busyness” and to spend time with family members. Keep in mind, as well, that you’ll save time as well as money not/not standing or waiting in the takeout line.